Making marriage harder

A St Valentine’s Day wish to take the law out of romance.

There is nothing wrong with wedding ceremonies, for those who want to do that sort of thing. Ceremonies could be religious or non-religious, and be between mixed-sex or same-sex couples. Indeed, one could have ceremonies involving anyone who was up for a bit of fun.

Nor is there anything wrong with wedding receptions. The key to a successful wedding reception is that the total value of the gifts on the wedding list should exceed the cost of the reception. And for romantics, the wedding reception is a perfect opportunity to meet others with a similar affliction in a comfortable and non-threatening environment.

But there is no need for weddings to have any legal consequences. Many who undergo weddings, for the best of reasons, do not seem to realise the dire legal effects of their actions. For a wedding means that a marriage contract has been entered into.

Every first-year law student used to know that marriage is a form of contract. Indeed, the celebrated case of Bardell v Pickwick reminds us that a legal action could once be brought for breach of a promise to enter such a contract.

Usually with such onerous contracts, both parties should have separate legal advice. I do not mean advice for a prenuptial agreement; I mean legal advice for both parties on entering the nuptial agreement itself.

A commercial transaction of comparable value -- say a share acquisition or a disposal of assets -- would normally be accompanied by lawyerly advice: seeking contractual protections, guarantees, and amounts in escrow. Various adverse outcomes would be discussed with harsh and open realism, and the parties would allocate risks and rights of termination accordingly. And once both parties were properly advised, and had mutually agreed the legal outcomes of various unhappy scenarios, then there would be a cooling-off period of 12 months before the agreement had legal effect.

Indeed, the world would be a far happier place if marriage was harder and divorce easier. There would be far fewer divorce lawyers if there were more marriage lawyers, just as companies that are realistic and well-advised when they negotiate a contract tend not to get bogged down subsequently in messy litigation.

Couples who really want to entrap themselves in a legal relationship, as well as having a marriage ceremony and a nice reception, should be allowed to do so. After all, it does take all sorts.

But one suspects that if the parties were forced to consider the legal consequences of their marriage, fewer would get married. However, those marriages which then did take place would tend to endure happily ever after.

And there's a romantic thought.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland